Exclusive Interview with Nicole Holofcener about ‘Enough Said’

Enough Said movie poster

With movies like “Lovely & Amazing,” “Friends with Money” and “Please Give,” Nicole Holofcener has firmly established herself as a filmmaker with a unique voice. In a time where romance and relationship movies are being critically and commercially crucified, her films are wonderfully refreshing as they feature characters who feel real, are remarkably down to earth and have flaws we can all understand and relate to. Even if you think her films deal with familiar subjects and situations, the attention Holofcener gives to her characters and the actors who play them make you feel like you are experiencing a story you have never watched before.

Her film “Enough Said” is no exception to this, and it stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva, a professional masseuse and single mother who is slowly getting back into the dating game. While at a party, she meets Albert (James Gandolfini, in one of his last performances), and the two find themselves forming a deep connection very quickly. Things, however, get complicated when (SPOILER ALERT) Eva discovers that one of her patients, Marianne (Catherine Keener), is actually Albert’s ex-wife. Throughout their sessions together, Marianne has been giving Eva many different examples about what a lousy husband Albert was, and this makes Eva wonder if her first impressions of Albert were the right ones to have.

I talked with Holofcener while she was doing press for the “Enough Said” digital release, and the movie itself has since received various nominations from the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. During our interview, I got to find out how she comes up with such wonderfully unique characters, what it was like for her to work with the late James Gandolfini, and we also talked about Catherine Keener who has appeared in most of her films and how their creative relationship has evolved from their first film together.

Ben Kenber: “Enough Said” is fantastic and one of the best films of 2013. With this and “Please Give,” I really love how your movies deal with characters that are down to earth and have flaws like everybody else. Most romantic movies usually don’t have that, but your films are among the exceptions.

Nicole Holofcener: That’s very nice. Thank you. That’s what I’m going for.

Ben Kenber: With “Enough Said” and the other movies you have made so far, how do you come up with such unique characters?

Nicole Holofcener: I have no idea (laughs). I mean they’re kind of an amalgamation of people I know and people in my imagination. I guess, by going very specific, sometimes I’ll focus on a character’s habit or a quirk or a mannerism or something irritating or something specific. I started with the Sarah character (played by Toni Collette) in this movie with the fact that she has made problems that started with a friend of mine who said she left bracelets on the kitchen counter, and she finds them in the kitchen and how much that annoys her and why she won’t simply ask her housekeeper not to do that. Then I have Sarah, and it’s like everything kind of falls into place after that, not easily. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it informs who that person is and what her issues might be. And then all of a sudden, she had this whole story with her housekeeper and it ended up being a good scene, but it started with the bracelet on the kitchen counter. So very specific, I guess. By going very specific and individual. When I read a script, I hate it when they say things like, “Sarah, 35, driven, type A, but inside falling apart.” It’s like, well then, you don’t even have to read what happens because you’ve already been told who she is.

Ben Kenber: This looks like a movie which sticks very closely to the script you wrote, but was there any improvisation used by the actors?

Nicole Holofcener: Yeah, absolutely. The story is very much the script as written, but they (the actors) ad-libbed all over the place, and I got rid of some and I kept some. But they had the freedom to do that especially because they were so funny and smart. They changed things but not the story.

Ben Kenber: The characters are so down to earth, and everybody seemed so relaxed onscreen. How did you manage to get such naturalistic performances from your cast?

Nicole Holofcener: They were sedated. I just gave everyone a Xanax every day. If only it could be like that (laughs). Some days were more relaxed than others but, as they say, the director sets the tone. I’m pretty relaxed, and while I take directing seriously, we’re not in a war zone. I try to have a good time and help people feel safe and relaxed so that they can give vulnerable performances and trust me. I try to earn their trust, and then I try to help them feel comfortable.

Ben Kenber: Well it definitely looks like he succeeded in doing so.

Nicole Holofcener: Well that’s good.

Ben Kenber: I do have to ask you about the late James Gandolfini because this is a great role to see him in. It shows audiences there was more to him than Tony Soprano. People should’ve known this before “Enough Said” came out, but the movie makes it clear to those who couldn’t get “The Sopranos” out of their heads. What was it like to work with him?

Nicole Holofcener: It was great to work with him. It was often challenging. He asked a lot of questions. I think we were sometimes mutual pains in the asses, but in a very affectionate way. He’d look at me like, “C’mon!” I’d look at him like, “C’mon!” He was playful and very hard-working, very self-effacing and sweet, shy. The crew loved him. He was very friendly and warm toward the crew which was very nice and so was Julia (Louis-Dreyfuss). So, I had a very relaxed family kind of feeling.

Ben Kenber: Yeah, you definitely get that from watching the movie. Catherine Keener also stars in this movie as Marianne, and you’ve worked with her several times in the past. How has your working relationship with her evolved from the first time you worked with her to this one?

Nicole Holofcener: Well, the first time I worked with her I was kind of scared. She had more experience than me. It (“Walking and Talking”) was my first feature, and I was pretty intimidated by her. But she was very giving and warm, and that’s why we continue to work together. We’ve gotten to know each other so well, and discovering how wonderful she is, every part, just made me want to work with her again and again. And now that it has been so many years, it’s a short hand. Even though she’s still great, I’m not intimidated by her anymore (laughs). She can still be a little scary.

Ben Kenber: Keener is a terrific actress, and the rapport between you and her really shows with each movie you work together on.

Nicole Holofcener: Good, yeah. It’s a pretty special relationship, definitely.

Ben Kenber: Well, I really, really liked this movie a lot. I really gravitate towards movies with very down-to-earth characters. I usually avoid romantic movies like the plague, but with movies like yours where you can really relate to the characters and the problems they experience in life, they really stand out in a wonderful way. “Enough Said” is one of those movies.

Nicole Holofcener: I’m so glad. I hope that people who avoid romantic movies will watch this one for the same reason (laughs). Thanks, that’s good.

I want to thank Nicole Holofcener for taking the time to talk with me. “Enough Said” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

 

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Gillian Robespierre Sets the Record Straight about ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Gillian on set

Obvious Child” marks the feature film directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, and it is one of the most assured directorial debuts I have seen in some time. It tells the story of aspiring stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate in a star making performance) whose life has just hit rock bottom. As the movie starts, she gets dumped by her boyfriend, fired from her job, and then finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand. Suffice to say, this is not the best of times for her. But at the same time, what happens from there results in one of the best romantic comedies you could ever hope to see.

Obvious Child movie poster

Now since Donna decides to get an abortion, “Obvious Child” has been labeled by many as the first ever “abortion comedy.” But while Robespierre is glad this has given her movie far more attention than she ever expected, she does not share this point of view. During an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, she made this very clear.

Gillian Robespierre: That’s not why we made this movie, to be called an abortion comedy, because we don’t think it is. I don’t think abortions are funny or hilarious, and I think that shorthand leads to believe we’ve been flippant or glib with the topic. We wanted to accomplish a couple of things with making this movie, and one was making a romantic comedy that was very entertaining, had a lot of romance, had a really funny leading lady, and had somebody who was recognizable onscreen who felt like she could be you or your sister or your best friend. And her parents were recognizable and her best friends were recognizable in a genre that sometimes doesn’t seem relatable. That’s what we wanted to do and really wanted to show. And we wanted to take some stigma away from abortion at the same time and show a procedure that was not full of regret and shame. Donna doesn’t put it on herself and her friends and the characters around her don’t put it on her either. That’s simply all we wanted to accomplish.

Indeed, the movie is really about how Donna picks herself up from her depressed state, comes to empower herself, and eventually learns to trust other people again after getting her heart shattered. This allows Robespierre to find humor in the more serious moments, and at the same time she succeeds in keeping things both human and intimate. These days it seems incredibly difficult to make a movie with such down to earth characters, but she pulls this off with what seems like relative ease.

GR: I think when we talk sometimes even in one sentence, offstage or on stage in a movie or in real life, sometimes we write comedy and tragedy in one beat. I think we’re just trying to take that sort of natural tone that we have and put it on the screen and cut out all the fat that movies and romantic comedies have and have the tone just be very realistic. Donna is a naturally funny character so in one beat she’ll be saying something very self-deprecating, and in the next second she’ll be saying something very sweet and heartfelt. I think that’s just how we interact with each other. To me, it’s just a realistic portrayal of how modern people speak to each other.

When it came to the movie’s title, Robespierre admitted it came from the song of the same name by Paul Simon. She explained why she chose it.

GR: I don’t think Donna is a child or an obvious child. I think Donna is somebody who’s not ready for what the late 20’s is giving her, and she thought she would be someplace else,” Robespierre said. “She didn’t know that the late 20’s is just as hard as her early 20’s, and she’s just trying to figure out how to be confident in where her voice is on and offstage. She’s just trying to figure out how to take over this passivity that seems to be a running narrative in her life, and I think she’s mature and thoughtful, and I think she’s doing something that needs to be done.

The fact Robespierre chose the title of a Paul Simon song for her movie made me wonder if the lyrics played a big part in her decision.

GR: I’m a rhythm girl. I do know the lyrics to the song, I’ve read the liner notes, and I think that determines the feel of the song. It’s not just like drum and bass, it’s obviously Paul Simon’s beautiful poetry that he’s written. But I just liked it for nostalgic reasons and I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I listened to that song a lot when I was little in my car looking out the window, making up my little movie ideas; ‘Oh look at that tree, I feel like I’m in a movie.’

Of course, with this movie being a comedy, you come out of it wondering how many of its scenes were improvised instead of scripted. When you have a strong comedic talent heading your cast, we are quick to believe the director had no choice but to let their main star rewrite the screenplay themselves. But to hear Robespierre say it, the job of a director is to work with people instead of for them.

GR: I think filmmaking makes me really excited about being a filmmaker, and wanting to do this in the first place is that you get the chance to collaborate with a lot of smart, creative, intelligent actors, cinematographers, and editors. Every step of the way is collaboration, and what Jenny and I found in each other was a tone of how we like to speak with one another, and a comfortability of where our parameters are. I was very comfortable with letting Jenny go because she knows Donna just as well as I do, and we were really on the same page. So if a word didn’t feel true and if a sentence would have been funnier this way, I was very malleable. I have an ego, but it’s a different kind of ego.

“Obvious Child” started off as a short film Robespierre made, and it made me wonder about the differences between making a short as opposed to a feature length movie. Her immediate response was time and money as she never had enough of either, but she did go into more detail about what she had to deal with this time around.

GR: We had a crew of 30 people which was very new for me. The short was just four or five people all from film school. This was a real movie set where my producer Elizabeth (Holm) and I worked really hard to hire a crew. We were a boss and paid thirty people, and there’s something really exciting about that and really scary about that. To be somebody’s employer comes with, I think, a lot of heaviness and respect for the people who work for you and who were coming in every day and bringing in so much of themselves to their roles whether it’s Jenny coming in every day focused, but also the crafty person and the DP and the gaffer. Everybody was full-fucking focused.

Still, with “Obvious Child” dealing with the divisive issue of abortion, people can’t help but think pro-life supporters have been giving the filmmakers and actors a lot of grief. Robespierre responded she hasn’t personally received any feedback from any pro-life groups, and she again reiterated her movie is not an abortion comedy. In my opinion, I liked how it dealt with abortion in an intelligent and refreshing manner. Movies like “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” both which I loved, sidestep abortion in favor of dealing with unplanned pregnancies in another way. But in this post Roe vs. Wade world, it’s surprising we haven’t had more movies like “Obvious Child.” But while it may seem like a revolutionary movie, Robespierre made it clear she wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel.

GR: There’s room for other storytellers out there. I think just because one movie is tackling unplanned pregnancy that ends in childbirth, that’s a real narrative and that’s a story that happens. We’re tackling it in a different way but also making it a comedy using a genre that we love which is the romantic comedy. I was just watching “Knocked Up” last night, it was on TBS, and I laughed my head off.

“Obvious Child” was, in my opinion, one of the ten best movies of 2014. While Jenny Slate is getting the praise she deserves for her performance, the movie’s success is really thanks to Gillian Robespierre whose work here bodes well for the great future she has ahead of her. In a sea of independent films which constantly get lost in the shuffle of all the superhero blockbusters being unleashed on us, it’s great to see a movie like this get the attention it deserves.

Image, poster and featurette courtesy of A24.

 

‘Obvious Child’ Ranks Among My Favorite Rom Coms of All Time

Obvious Child movie poster

Uh-oh, I think I’m becoming a fan of romantic comedies. For the longest time, I have been avoiding them like the plague as they feature characters whose problems don’t even compare to what I go through, dialogue which makes me cringe in such an incredibly painful way, and acting that is embarrassing and flat. But just as the genre looks to be finally dying out, 2014 brought us movies like “What If” and “The One I Love” which succeed in reinvigorating it to where I got surprised in a way I didn’t expect. But moreover, these movies have provided us with down to earth characters we can actually relate to instead of sneer at in bitterness.

Of all the romantic comedies released in 2014, I doubt I will see one better than “Obvious Child.” It marks the feature film directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, and it’s a very confident and assured debut as she follows the trials and tribulations of a twenty-something woman whose life hits a low point which leaves her in a depressed funk. It also deals with a very touchy subject in a way both intelligent and very refreshing, and that makes this rom com a brilliantly subversive one.

Former “Saturday Night Live” star Jenny Slate stars as Donna Stern, a comedian and bookstore employee who is about to go through one of the worst periods of her life. “Obvious Child” starts with Donna’s boyfriend dumping her which leaves her utterly devastated, and then she is informed the bookstore she works at will be closing which will leave her out of a job. This leads her sinking into a depressed state which results in one of her worst stand up gigs ever, but on that same night she meets a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy) with whom she strikes up an easy-going conversation. From there, the two of them have a night of fun where Max accidentally farts in Donna’s face, and they end up having sex after an exuberant dancing session to Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child,” a song from which this movie gets its name.

Not long afterwards, Donna discovers this one-night stand has gotten her pregnant, something she is not the least bit prepared for. As a result, she decides to get an abortion but finds she has to wait a few days before the doctors can perform the procedure. During this time, she wonders about whether or not to tell Max about her decision, and the movie chronicles her journey towards the best/worst Valentine’s Day she has ever had.

Many have been describing “Obvious Child” as the first ever abortion comedy, but that description doesn’t do it justice. Yes, abortion is a theme here, but it’s not what this movie is about. The main focus is on how Donna’s unplanned pregnancy forces her to confront the realities of independent womanhood for the first time in her life, and it proves to be a journey both rough and, at times, truly hilarious.

Many of us remember Slate from her brief stint on “SNL” where she accidentally let the F-word slip out of her mouth. She left after only season, but she has since made a name for herself on “Parks & Recreations” and “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” proves to be a huge breakthrough for her, and you just want to hug her after watching this movie. She infuses Donna with a lot of heart and makes you relate to her struggles as life constantly throws an endless number of curveballs in her direction, and we get so emotionally absorbed in Donna’s journey as she faces up to her responsibilities and rises above her misery which threatens to consume her completely. Slate is both warm and funny at the same time, and that’s not always an easy combination to pull off. It’s one of the best performances from an actress I have seen this year.

Slate is also backed up by a terrific supporting cast which features characters who come to reveal things about themselves we wouldn’t otherwise have known. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as Donna’s friend and roommate Nellie, Richard Kind is drolly amusing as Donna’s father Jacob, Polly Draper has some very moving moments as Donna’s mother Nancy, Gabe Liedman is a hoot as everyone’s gay best friend Joey, and David Cross has some hilarious scenes as Sam, a comedian and a guy who just doesn’t get what’s going on around him.

I also have to give Jake Lacy a lot of credit as he makes Max a truly nice guy we never find ourselves snickering at. Roles like these are often very bland and don’t give actors a lot to work with, but Lacy makes you believe Max is the real deal and the kind of significant other we all hope to find in our own lives. Max could have been the most boring and thankless character in “Obvious Child,” but Lacy keeps him from becoming this with a lot of humor and charm.

When it comes to the abortion issue, which has already split people on “Obvious Child” (particularly those who haven’t even bothered to see it), Robespierre handles it in a manner which is actually very refreshing. She’s not out to demonize abortion, but she also doesn’t make light of it either. In this Roe vs. Wade world we have been living in for the past few decades, I’m surprised we haven’t had more movies like this one.

Robespierre has created a truly wonderful film I am very eager to see again soon, and it’s one of the most intelligent rom-coms to come out in some time. “Obvious Child” really left a smile on my face as I walked out of the theater. Regardless of whether or not you have gone through what Donna has, or whether you’re a man or a woman for that matter, you can sympathize with what she goes through as we have all hit a rocky point in our lives. What’s great is how she rises above her problems and becomes a stronger person as a result. Robespierre and company confront the painful moments in these characters lives with a lot of intelligence and warmth, and it’s also really funny. It’s deep, but it also had me laughing a lot.

* * * * out of * * * *

FYI: This review was written shortly before this movie went into wide release.

About Time

About Time movie poster

Those who know me best know I typically cannot tolerate romance movies. Sure, there are exceptions like “When Harry Met Sally” and “(500) Days of Summer,” but I usually find most of them to be unforgivably manipulative, inherently cheesy and full of cringe inducing dialogue. As a genre, I typically avoid it whenever possible, so my enthusiasm for “About Time” was not at an all-time high. But then I noticed a familiar name on the movie’s poster, Richard Curtis. This is the same man who wrote the screenplay for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” one of the few romance movies which actually had me on the edge of my seat, and he also wrote and directed “Love Actually” which has become my dad’s favorite film to watch on Christmas Eve. As a result, my excitement for this movie suddenly went up to an unexpected height.

“About Time,” on the surface looks, like the kind of romantic comedy where a man and woman get together, fall in love and then break up only to become a couple again by the movie’s end. But the fact is its trailer doesn’t do the movie any justice. The story ends up becoming more than the usual romance, and it ended up go in directions I didn’t expect it to. Curtis is obviously aware of the trappings inherent in this genre, and he succeeds in avoiding them and gives yet another film which is genuinely moving and full of characters who are relatable and refreshingly down to earth.

The main character of this romantic tale is Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), a 21-year-old desperate to have a girlfriend in this lifetime. His attempts at getting a kiss on New Year’s Eve don’t work out as planned, and it only adds to his self-deprecating attitude which he has clearly spent years perfecting. He can’t even capture the heart of his sister’s best friend Charlotte (Margot Robbie) who is quite the looker.

Before he heads off to London to become a lawyer, Tim’s dad (played by Bill Nighy) lets his son in on a little secret: the men in his family have the power to time travel. All Tim has to do is go inside a closet, clench his fists tightly and think about a place he wants to go to, and suddenly he’s there. He immediately tests this time travel power out and goes back to New Year’s Eve to get the kiss he missed out on, and from there he uses it to benefit himself and those closest to him whenever possible.

Now on the surface this seems like a silly plot for a movie, and the Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day” quickly came to mind as I watched “About Time,” but Curtis has not given us the typical time travel movie here. In fact, the time travel aspect gets pushed more and more into the background as Curtis aims to focus on not one but two love stories.

Tim ends up meeting an American woman at a blind dating restaurant where everyone is served food in the dark, and through their conversations they form a connection which becomes unbreakable. Once he gets outside and back into the light, he discovers the person he spoke with is the beautiful but insecure Mary (Rachel McAdams), and their moment on that quiet London street had me rooting for them to make this relationship work.

The other love story in “About Time” is between Tim and his dad, and I found it to be the most moving part of this movie. At first it looks like they have the usual father-son relationship where the father gives his son life advice and the son takes it with a grain of salt, but their relationship feels a lot more real than those I have seen in recent movies. Once Tim learns his dad is headed for a certain fate he can’t escape from, their relationship becomes even deeper and you dread the moment these two people will have their last ever conversation.

Are there some logistic problems with the time travel aspect of this movie? Probably, but I didn’t care. It serves as an interesting plot device as Tim accidentally erases his initial encounter with Mary after helping a friend, and he ends up having to make her fall in love with him all over again. It’s also amusing to watch Tim try to improve on certain moments in his life with Mary like when they have sex or when he proposes marriage. Heck, we’d all love to have the power to undo the more embarrassing moments in our lives, and I got a huge kick out of Tim undoing his.

But the time travel device does serves to illuminate one of the movie’s main themes which is to not be overly concerned with the past or the future, but to instead stay in the present and take pleasure in every moment. This is what I love about Curtis’ movies, how he takes the most mundane, ordinary things and turns them into a thing of beauty. They are the things in life we take for granted and don’t always take the time to appreciate. By the movie’s end, Curtis makes us realize this, and we come out of “About Time” with an upbeat look on life we don’t always have.

The other thing I’ve come to love about Curtis is how populates his films with multi-dimensional characters we can relate to. The thing that drives me nuts about a lot of movies, especially ones from the romantic genre, is how they give us characters that are doing so much better than the rest of us, and it gets to where we just believe that all these problems with love only happen to successful white people. Curtis, however, continues to give us the most memorable characters we could ever hope to meet in our lifetime.

It also helps that Curtis has quite the cast to work with. Domhnall Gleeson, whom you might remember as Bill Weasley in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” is terrific in the way he radiates that Hugh Grant awkwardness as his character goes from being unlucky in love to being very lucky in life. As for Rachel McAdams, I’m trying to remember the last time I found her to be so radiant in a movie. McAdams does some of her best work here as Mary, and every time she smiles it just fills your heart with joy. There’s also some nice performances from Lydia Wilson as Tim’s wayward sister Kit Kat (yup, that’s her name), Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s mom, and the late Richard Griffiths has a wonderfully memorable moment as an actor who doesn’t need help memorizing his lines and will bluntly let you know this.

But the best performance in “About Time” comes from Bill Nighy who portrays Tim’s dad (we never learn his character’s real name). It’s the simplicity of his performance which really gets to you as he never overplays or underplays the character. He never tries to go for that “Oscar moment” which the Academy easily goes crazy over for all the wrong reasons. Nighy doesn’t give us an extraordinary man or a boring father. Instead, he just gives us a man and a dad who is no different from the one we’ve grown up with, and he makes it so, when we watch him, we can’t help but think of our own dad.

Seriously, “About Time” moved me to tears. The only other movie this year I’ve cried after was Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” but that’s mainly because he just had to use Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” which remains the saddest piece of music I have ever heard. With this film, Curtis reminds you of how the simple pleasures in life can often be the greatest, and of how you need pain in order to better appreciate happiness. There are a lot of movies out there which try and make you see this, but few filmmakers these days can make us appreciate this as much as Curtis does.

It’s a bummer to hear Curtis say “About Time” will be his last film as a director. He’s not leaving the movie business, but he is going to spend more time on the charities he works for. Still, it’s hard to think of any director, other than Mike Newell, who can better convey Curtis’ views on life as well as Curtis. Here’s hoping he changes his mind at some point in the future.

* * * * out of * * * *

Fifty Shades of Grey

fifty-shades-of-grey-movie-poster

I have not read E.L. James’ book “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but I have yet to hear anyone I know say a good thing about it. But after watching Sam Taylor-Johnson’s cinematic adaptation, I think I understand why it became such a literary phenomenon. It allows its readers to visualize sexual fantasies they don’t get perform in their own lives as the two main characters engage in a sadomasochistic relationship which appears alarmingly pleasurable. The question, however, is this, can the individual erotic desires James’ book conjures up come even close to equaling what we see in this long-awaited film adaptation? The answer is no, not even close, and I’m certain you don’t have to have read the book to confirm this.

Fifty Shades of Grey” is essentially a big tease of a movie which promises so much naughty stuff but instead ends up giving you very little if anything. It’s like the girl who kept teasing you in high school, and of course, you fell for her charms when you should have known better (don’t ask me how I know this). I came in with low expectations, and it proves to be a hilarious comedy for all the wrong reasons. But long before its climax or lack of one so to speak, I found myself becoming increasingly bored and started to wonder if this movie would ever end. When it finally did, I found myself breathing a huge sigh of relief.

We come to meet college student Anastasia Steel (Dakota Johnson), an English literature major on the verge of graduating when she is offered the opportunity to conduct an interview with the infinitely wealthy business entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Sparks end up flying for them instead of the audience, and while it takes far longer for them to kiss for the first time, it eventually allows Christian to bring Anastasia into his inner sanctum which includes a room filled with all the BDSM equipment you could ever hope to find or see so beautifully maintained.

Does Anastasia end up becoming the submissive to the dominant Christian? The answer seems fairly certain, but the movie takes forever to get to that point as Christian keeps encouraging Anastasia to sign a contract which will allow him to do the craziest things to her. It got to where I wanted to yell at the screen, “SIGN THE DAMN CONTRACT ALREADY!!!” Granted, Anastasia’s hesitation to do so is understandable and smart, but it just makes her inaction all the more tedious to endure. To encourage her, Christian does several things like buying her a new computer and a new car, selling her old one off in the process, and showing off the cars in his building’s garage. I kept waiting for Christian to reveal himself as a serial killer, but to do so would have threatened to make this movie interesting.

Perhaps it’s a mistake to come into “Fifty Shades of Grey” expecting anything truly realistic as it seems to exist more in a fantasy world than the real one. Still, I can’t help but wonder how Christian Grey finds the time to engage in any kind of sadomasochistic activity when he runs the kind of business which should keep him fully occupied 24/7. Then again, he does have plenty of time to work out at the gym so he can show off those six-pack abs you know he has hidden underneath his shirt.

Regardless of how I feel about Anastasia as a character and of her foolish descent into Christian’s twisted lifestyle, Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, proves to be quite a good actress. I liked how she was able to convey a variety of emotions without having to say a word, and she is able to show her character’s longing while her co-star is unable to do so, which is putting it nicely. With the right role in the right movie, she may end up with quite the career as an actress, and she looks to be capable of doing so much better than appearing in this piece of dreck.

As for her co-star, Jamie Dornan who plays Christian Grey, watching him reminded me of a scene in “The Shawshank Redemption” when Red described Andy Dufresne as a guy who “looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over.” Watching “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I can’t help but think Dornan was cast just for his good looks. From start to finish, he comes across as so emotionally vacant to where I wondered if he was capable of exhibiting any kind of emotion at all. His face looks like it is frozen in place, and not even sex can seem to thaw it. Dornan does, however, have the best line when he says he’s “fifty shades of f**ked up,” and that line effectively sums up this whole movie.

Among the other things which cripple “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the fact that Johnson and Dornan don’t have much chemistry. Romantic relationships in movies thrive on the stars having some form of it, and this isn’t the case here. Rumor has it that they didn’t get along behind the scenes, and this shows here regardless of the studio’s efforts to hide the truth. Then again, it must be somewhat difficult to have chemistry when one lover punishes the other lover physically in order to feel anything.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson only has one previous credit which is “Nowhere Boy,” a film which chronicles the childhood experiences of John Lennon. I haven’t seen it, but I’m certain my friend Trevor, a huge John Lennon fan, has many great things to say about it. But whatever great things she was able to accomplish with “Nowhere Boy” is not on display here as she succeeds in making the most sleep-inducing erotic movie ever. The sex scenes come way too late and are very unimaginative. Christian running an ice cube down Anastasia’s stomach? We’ve seen that before. As for Taylor-Johnson’s song selections which include “I Put a Spell on You” and “Beast of Burden,” they are far too obvious even if the former is sung by Annie Lennox.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” marks the first erotic studio movie Hollywood has released since “Unfaithful” which came out back in 2002. This movie represented a chance for Hollywood to deal with sexual relationships more frankly than others have in recent years, but it instead proves to be an astonishingly chaste motion picture which seems stunning considering the source material. Late night movies on Cinemax and Showtime have far more erotic power than this one (don’t ask me how I know this either), and the sex scenes are so sterile looking that it feels like they were shot in Irvine, California. The marketing department did a brilliant job in titillating moviegoers into thinking they were getting some sexy stuff they won’t find on the internet (unless they look in the right places, of course), but we went through the same thing with “Showgirls” and look what happened there. “Fifty Shades of Grey” ends up making Paul Verhoeven’s camp classic look like “Vertigo.”

Seriously, there are so many other movies that are far better than this piece of crap and which deal with sadomasochistic relationships in a healthier and far more sensual way like “Secretary” which starred James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and “The Duke of Burgundy” which is from the director of “Berberian Sound Studio,” Peter Strickland. What depresses me is audiences are going to flock out to this adaptation than they will to other movies far more worthy of their time and money. Some books translate well to the silver screen, but this one should have stayed on the written page. Then again, when a book like “Fifty Shades of Grey” sells an incredible amount of copies, why stop there?

* out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Carlos Marques-Marcet on ‘10,000 Km’

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The thought of a long-distance relationship is frightening as it thoroughly tests the bond between a loving couple to where it looks like they are destined for disaster. One relationship is put to this test in “10,000 Km,” a romantic drama co-written and directed by Carlos Marques-Marcet.

Alexandra (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) are a loving couple living in Barcelona, Spain, but they also struggle to balance out their careers while trying to start a family. Then Alexandra accepts a one-year residency in Los Angeles which could really jump start her photography career, and Sergi has no choice but to stay in Barcelona where he works as a teacher. Luckily, they have modern technology which allows them to keep in touch on a daily basis, but what is helping to keep them together may also tear them apart.

“10,000 Km” proved to be a powerful meditation on the struggle of a long-distance relationship, and it starts off with a scene which lasts several minutes and captures the characters in their most intimate state. I got to talk with Marcet while he was in Los Angeles, and he talked about how that scene came about and how long it took to shoot. In addition, he also clarified how much of the movie was shot in Spain and Los Angeles, how he came to cast Tena and Verdaguer, and of how he kept the actors separated during shooting.

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Ben Kenber: It’s interesting to see how this relationship evolves once the two lovers are separated by continents and use technology to keep in touch with one another. Was it hard to balance out the benefits of technology with the human element in this movie?

Carlos Marques-Marcet: No. We knew from the beginning that the driving point was to portray the relationship which derives from the human element. The technology was the tool and the human part was the means somehow, so it wasn’t so much about finding a balance but trying to see how to use these tools to convey the means.

BK: The opening sequence of “10,000 Km” is amazing as it lasts several minutes and features the two lovers being intimate with one another, and then one of them receives an unexpected job opportunity. How did you go about setting the scene up?

CMM: It was a long process to arrive there. It was originally not such a long scene, but then we looked at the script and it suddenly made sense to have this very long scene where you see them together. It’s a two shot of them and you are with them, then afterwards the rest of the movie we shot over shot because they have no other possibilities. There’s a symbolic element to it, this raw thing of being with two people together that weren’t there together. The making of it involved a lot of preparation. The location was the producer’s house, so I knew where I was going to shoot. It was a combination of working with all the departments, the actors and rehearsing. It was like a dance.

BK: This scene must have taken a very long time to shoot.

CMM: 17 takes and three days of shooting. We planned it and we wanted to do it with the dollies. There was no handheld camera. We wanted it to be grounded to the ground. I think it was an interesting way of how to go about it.

BK: Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer are both terrific in this movie. What was the casting process like?

CMM: So basically, we found David about a year before shooting. I had just graduated from UCLA and I didn’t want to shoot another short. I just took a couple of scenes from the movie and shot them just as an experiment with another actress. I watched a lot of You Tube videos and interviews. I like to see how actors move and how they talk, and I was looking for another actor, not David, and then I saw him in this video he made with a cell phone of two friends. Then I saw that he was an actor and I proposed to my producers that we bring him in for casting, but then it turned out that he’s actually known as a comedian. I had no idea. He’s like a “Saturday Night Live” comedian. Actually, he’s done a lot of theater, very serious theater, but people love him for his comedic aspect. But then he came into the casting process, and it was a very long casting process with two people for hours. I like to work with the actors instead of just having them come in to read. I like to meet people. It was David for sure, no doubt. And then with Natalia, it was a last-minute thing. We were actually going to shoot with another actress and she had to cancel, and when we finally found Natalia it was like a miracle. It was very clear that they had chemistry, and they became very close friends instantaneously.

BK: When it came to shooting the scenes when she’s in Los Angeles and he’s back in Spain and they are using Skype to keep in touch with one another, did you purposely separate the actors?

CMM: Yeah. Originally I wanted to shoot it in Los Angeles and in Barcelona at the same time, but Natalia had some scheduling conflicts. It wasn’t that cheap to do it. I wanted to shoot it in my own house in Los Angeles, but schedule wise it was not possible. So we put them in two different apartments in Barcelona and I actually after shooting the first scene said that it would be nice if they didn’t see each other, but that lasted like two or three days (laughs). After three days I was like it’s fine if they hang out with each other. I wanted to create the feeling of missing somebody, and three days was totally enough. In the end, they were hanging out together every night playing cards, going over the lines and drinking wine, and in the morning they had to be separated. So, for them being in touch every day and then during the day not being able to be together was very frustrating, and I think that shows up somehow in the movie.

BK: When “10,000 Km” begins we see this couple at their most intimate, and they still have that intimacy throughout the movie to a certain extent. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I loved how you ended the movie on an ambiguous note. It’s not the kind of movie that begs for a solid or more definitive conclusion.

CMM: Yeah, that came about during the editing. Actually, the script was much more clear, but while we were editing there was a bunch of dialogue that we decided to take out because I felt that already through the images we could tell what was going on. Then we took it out and then for some people it became more ambiguous than it was in the script. I like it. It was not in the plan of how I shot it. I have my own vision of it, but I also like to let people imagine whatever they want.

BK: “10,000 Km” is not designed to give anyone a definitive answer to whether long-distance relationships can work or not, but I came out of it hoping these two would find a way to make things work out.

CMM: That’s a very optimistic view (laughs). We leave it so that the very optimistic people can think that (laughs).

BK: Despite the scheduling conflicts, were you able to shoot any of the movie in Los Angeles, or was it mostly shot in Barcelona?

CMM: Mostly in Barcelona, and then I shot some of the stuff in LA. There are some shots where you see my home in Echo Park with the webcam and everything, but mostly we shot it in Barcelona. We faked the LA interior in Barcelona. It was not possible to do it the other way around. In Los Angeles, you won’t find interior like you would in Barcelona. I didn’t want to shoot in a studio. I wanted to shoot in a real location so they have the feeling that they are in a house or a real apartment.

I want to thank Carlos Marques for taking the time to talk with me. “10,000 Km” is now available to own and rent on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.

Movies My Parents Wanted Me To See: Love Actually

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Around Christmas, most families watch “A Christmas Carol” as an annual holiday tradition. Others watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” which I still haven’t seen (don’t ask me why). For my family, their annual tradition is not “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but a British romantic comedy called “Love Actually.” I myself prefer “Bad Santa” with Billy Bob Thornton, but I’m in the minority of those in my family who want to see it at Christmas time. Now when it comes to romantic comedies, I usually can’t stand them because they all look the same. But my parents kept begging me to watch it just like they did with “The Big Lebowski,” so I gave in and sat on one of those comfy leather chairs they have. It took me no time to be won over by what was shown onscreen, and it got off to a perfect start with Hugh Grant’s character of Prime Minister David saying:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywThere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board weren’t messages of hate or revenge, they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

Now whereas your average romantic comedy focuses on one relationship which goes from its wonderful beginning to its horrific breakup only for those same two people getting back together again, “Love Actually” instead focuses on relationships between eight couples. So basically, we get to view love in all its various stages from where it is just starting for some, become uncertain for others, remains unrequited for the unlucky few, and young love which is typically fret with wonder and the first of many heartaches. You have no clear idea where the movie is going, and this is what makes it so good. You become so enamored of these characters and what they go through, and you feel all the various emotions they are forced to deal with.

“Love Actually” was directed by Richard Curtis who brought to the screen one of the all-time great romantic comedies with “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Like that one, he keeps a sweet and mostly innocent tone which never becomes overly manipulative as it does in American movies. Plus, he gets nothing but genuine emotions from the actors, and this is a big help to say the least. With a cast as great as this, you can always expect them to make their characters appear as real as they can be.

In describing the various stories, I think it’ll be easier to talk about my favorite moments from the film. One which comes immediately to mind is the story of Juliet (Keira Knightley) who has just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) videotapes their wedding. There’s one problem, all the footage Mark gets is of her. Watching Keira pick up on this and realize what it means is powerful, and Mark’s reaction to her is perfectly complemented by Dido’s “Here with Me.” Hence the pain of unrequited love comes up again, dammit.

Then you have Alan Rickman, so sublime in every role he plays, as Harry who works as a managing director of a design agency whose secretary Mia is not so subtly hitting on him. However, he is happily married, or so it seems, to Karen (Emma Thompson). Karen’s reaction to the present she didn’t expect to get is a painful one to witness. Thompson, dare we ever forget, is still an amazing actress who can move you without using words. The things people can tell about others without having to spell it out represents how good the screenplay is.

The hardest actor to watch in “Love Actually,” however, is Liam Neeson as we see his character trying to move on after the sudden death of his wife. You can’t help but think of what happened to his real-life wife Natasha Richardson when Neeson delivers a touching eulogy here to his movie wife. But getting past that, it’s fun to watch the wonderful relationship he has with his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) as he convinces him to chase after the girl he pines for. This might seem foolish in hindsight because we don’t want to see our kids get their hearts shattered at such a young age, but it doesn’t make sense to bottle up your feelings forever, does it?

Now while this movie has a wealth of fantastic British actors like any “Harry Potter” movie, a few Americans do find their way into the mix. The most prominent one is the always fantastic Laura Linney who portrays Sarah, a woman tending to her mentally ill brother Michael while harboring an insatiable crush on the devastatingly handsome Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). For such a well-trained stage actress, Linney has such emotionally honest moments which she handles with such delicate subtlety. Seriously, it gets to where you don’t even realize she is acting.

As for Grant, you can always count on him to bring the befuddled nervousness from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and perform it to sheer comic perfection in a movie like this. I also loved the scene in which he puts the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) back in his place. You’d figure he would be stumbling about, but he plays the Prime Minister after all, and this is a Prime Minister who is not looking for a Bush/Blair relationship. Also, seeing him go door to door looking for the girl who strikes his fancy leads to a comic highpoint where he is forced to sing carols for young kids, and they react as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert.

But the one actor who steals the show in “Love Actually” is the hilarious Bill Nighy who plays the aging rock and roll legend Billy Mack. He is a gift for those who do not want their Christmas movie characters to be overly, if at all, sentimental. The contempt Billy has for himself as he promotes his “festering turd of a record” is somewhat softened by his inescapable sense of humor even when he blatantly acts inappropriately:

“Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them to you for free!”

Colin Firth’s performance as broken-hearted writer Jamie Bennett serves as a reminder of why women still swoon over him ever since he was in “Pride & Prejudice.” Watching him as he professes his love for his housemaid Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) shows how disarmingly polite he can even while he is clearly scared to death. It’s all funny and touching at the same time. It’s also fun watching him trying to master the Portuguese language which he has the same amount of luck with as Lieutenant Uhura had trying to speak Klingon in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

There are several other cute stories in “Love Actually” worth taking in like the budding relationship which builds up between John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page). It’s great seeing John talk about how nice it is to have someone to chat with while he and Judy are working buck naked as stand-ins for a sex scene in a movie. It gives new meaning to the term “skip the foreplay.”

Granted, some stories in “Love Actually” get shorter shrift than others, but everything seems to balance out just right. Movies these days tend to be better when they are condensed in structure, but the mix of stories on display here serves to show how powerful love can be to lift us up and tear us down in a heartbeat. I’m so glad this romantic comedy is anything but conventional. There are so many of them out there, several of them starring Katherine Heigel, that it drives me up the wall.

I do have to mention something in particular about the film; when we watch all the characters meeting up at the airport, it is interspersed with images of people meeting their family and loved ones at Heathrow Airport, so happy to see each other. It blends perfectly into the movie and makes you realize just how true to the heart “Love Actually” is in what it portrays. Having written this, I now understand and appreciate why my parents have made watching this movie an annual Christmas tradition.

I still like “Bad Santa” better though…

* * * * out of * * * *

The Choice

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Okay, I’ll admit I got choked up at some scenes in the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation, “The Choice,” and the story took turns I didn’t expect it to. But saying “The Choice” is a better cinematic version of Sparks’ work than “Safe Haven” is the equivalent of saying “Cannonball Run” is better than “Cannonball Run II.” In the end that is faint praise of the very, very faint kind. While the Sparks faithful may find much to enjoy about “The Choice,” it is the usual romantic nonsense which will have you scratching your head more often than not.

The movie stars Benjamin Walker of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer” fame as Travis Parker, a perennial ladies’ man who works at his dad’s veterinarian office and yet has all the time in the world to travel around the North Carolina shore on his boat. How this guy makes a living is beyond me as the 40-hour work week doesn’t seem to apply to him. While all his friends have a significant other in their lives, Travis believes having one will seriously cramp his lifestyle for no good reason. But even his sister is quick to inform him how he is in real trouble when a new girl arrives in town.

Next thing you know, we get introduced to medical student Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer) who has just moved into a small house right next to Travis’, and she becomes incensed when he is sitting outside and blasting Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” on his stereo. These two do not get off to a great start, and Gabby finds herself repelled by Travis’ presence whenever she ends up in the same place as him. But in truth they are having a Han Solo/Princess Leia relationship in which they look like they can’t stand each other, but underneath they are fighting a strong attraction which cannot be denied. Plus, it reminds me of a great dialogue exchange between Iris and Gilbert in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes:”

“You’re the most contemptible person I’ve ever met in all my life!”

“Confidentially, I think you’re a bit of a stinker, too.”

Please note: those two characters ended up falling for each other.

While their eventual coming together is no surprise, it is a stunner to see just how quickly Gabby forgets about her long term boyfriend. He’s a doctor named Ryan McCarthy (played by former Superman Tom Welling) who’s a genuinely good man with a great future ahead of him, and Gabby knows he is someone she can depend on. But when Travis enters her life, she finds an excitement unlike any she has previously experienced. Still, it is astonishing how one person can easily forget their significant other in what seems like a heartbeat. Then again, anything’s possible.

From there, “The Choice” goes on a journey which is not as predictable as its poster might suggest, and it reaches a point where you realize why the movie has the title it does. It’s a look at some of the hardest choices one has to make in a relationship, but it ends up being assigned to one character in particular. Travis has to consider his options while Gabby doesn’t have much of a say, and the reasons for this will become clear to you if you decide to subject yourself to what is yet another emotionally manipulative romantic movie.

Somehow it seems ridiculous the choice this movie’s title refers to is up to one person and not others. If more characters were involved, then “The Choice” might have been more interesting than it ended up being, but this is a romantic movie done by the numbers and which serves to play with your emotions rather than be honest with you about the human condition.

The movie’s ending is one which undoubtedly please audiences, but it is also a largely unrealistic one and bound to have many rolling their eyes in severe disbelief. I won’t spoil it for you here, but I found it impossible to see this as anything other than an overblown fantasy. Romantic movies work best when they deal with real people in situations we can relate to, but this one does not.

If there is one thing “The Choice” has going for it, it’s how it makes North Carolina look like the most beautiful place to take a summer vacation at. North Carolina is to Nicholas Sparks as Maine is to Stephen King, and it’s hard to think of many other movies where this state looks as beautiful as it does here. Perhaps Sparks can write a novel about the history of North Carolina and someone can make a movie out of it worth watching. Like I said, anything is possible.

Walker and Palmer do have a palpable chemistry and Palmer, who is Australian, does pull off a very impressive American accent, but this is just another romantic movie which reminds me why I tend to avoid them on a regular basis. Some directors love to play their audiences like a piano, but they should be forbidden to do so when it comes to motion pictures like these.

You want a romantic movie worth watching? Try “When Harry Met Sally,” Say Anything,” “Obvious Child” or “What If” instead because those at least engage the viewer in an honest way. “The Choice” is just another one that plays by a rulebook which should have been obliterated a long time ago. Like many Sparks adaptations before it, this one can’t hold a candle to “The Notebook.”

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * out of * * * *